Where Have All the Men Gone?
Throughout history, society has shifted like a pendulum. We see this tendency for situations to swing from one extreme to another in many different areas of our lives, from the political to the social. For example, where we once had rigid dress codes and wouldn’t think to leave our homes without gloves and hats, we now go to the market in shorts and t-shirts.
This swing in ideology has occurred in yoga’s history as well. For thousands of years, the practice of yoga was taught exclusively by and to men. The patriarchal society of India placed the mantle of teaching and practicing yoga squarely on the shoulders of the males who were of the warrior or priest castes. Women were simply not considered eligible as students.
This is much different from the world of yoga we see today in North America. In fact, according to one study of the 37 million yoga practitioners in the US, only 28% are men. Why has there been such a systemic change in the demographics of yoga? Where have all the men gone?
Likely, there are many reasons why the practice today is enjoyed by more women than men, but one of the most significant must be the way in which yoga spread to the west. One pioneer of western yoga instructors in the early 20th century was Indra Devi. Her teachings were promoted by the likes of Elizabeth Arden and Greta Garbo, and so it is natural that women gravitated toward these popular role models of the time. Later, as yoga made its way to public television, it was offered during the day when most women would be at home and men would be at work. As a result, women became the dominating demographic of yoga practitioners.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, where we no longer have as a standard the cultural model of a man in the workplace and a woman in the home, and we would expect to see men coming back to the practice. And, they are; just not very quickly. The stereotypes that have grown up around yoga have definitely kept this old model in play, leaving many men thinking that the practice is too feminine or not competitive enough to satisfy their ‘ workout’ needs.
“I’m not flexible enough for yoga.” is a common reason keeping men off the mat. To me, this is akin to saying that you’re too dirty for a bath, but there is a strong, if mistaken, belief that you have to possess a certain amount of flexibility to practice. “It’s not a strong enough workout” is another comment I’ve heard. All I can say about that is: try a Power Flow class, and we’ll talk afterward about the strength of the workout.
I have seen a male presence in my classes grow steadily as more and more men realize the gains to be made in mental health as well as physical strength and flexibility. As the larger health community recognizes the value of yoga to promote well-being, more people, and men, in particular, are showing up to classes. This is a wonderful thing to witness, and I am grateful that some of the stereotypes around yoga are breaking down. With more men joining the ranks of yoga, they will be looking for teachers with whom they can identify, and this, I hope, means that more men will undertake a teacher training program to serve this growing community.
Let’s help the pendulum settle in the middle!